Police raid Travellers' site to free men 'kept as slaves' for 15 years

Twenty-four "slaves" who were held at a Travellers' site in "shockingly filthy and cramped" conditions for up to 15 years have been freed as part of an ongoing police operation.

Officers were searching for more victims and suspects last night after making five arrests under anti-slavery laws in a dawn raid yesterday.

The arrests at Greenacre caravan site in Leighton Buzzard, Bedfordshire, formed part of a two-year operation, a police spokesman said. Weapons, drugs and money were also found at the site, he said.

Officers believe other suspects they intended to arrest in yesterday's raid had left the site and warned that slaves could also have been moved.

Detective Chief Inspector Sean O'Neil said the men were "recruited" from soup kitchens and benefits offices. "They're told, if you come here we'll pay you £80 a day and give you board and lodgings. But when they get here, their hair is cut off them, they're kept in some cases [in] horseboxes, dog kennels and old caravans, made to work for no money, given very, very small amounts of food."

The raid highlights the extent to which slavery in Britain thrives more than 200 years after it was outlawed. Anti-slavery campaigners said that, at any one time, there are around 5,000 people in the country who are victims of trafficking for forced labour and prostitution.

Paul Donohoe, a spokesman for Anti-Slavery International, said: "Coercion is used to bring people into the country to work in the sex industry or do other types of forced labour. Some are told they are coming to work in a café and only find out they are being exploited when they arrive. Others are paid a nominal wage, from which is deducted money they are told they owe; most commonly they are told they are paying back the cost of transporting them to Britain."

More slaves in Britain come from Nigeria than from any other country, ahead of China and Vietnam and more than a quarter are men and a similar number are children.

Official figures compiled using the National Referral Mechanism – the Serious Organised Crime Agency's framework for identifying victims of human trafficking – show that, between 1 April 2009 and 31 March 2011, 1,481 people were working as slaves in the UK.

But campaigners say that those figures only take into account the number of people found by police.

More than 200 officers were involved in yesterday's raid. Five residents of the caravan site, four men and one woman, were arrested under the Slavery and Servitude Act 2010 and are being held by police. The slaves, all men, were taken to a medical reception centre. Some were said to be English and others eastern European. Mr O'Neil said: "The men we found at the site were in a poor state of physical health and the conditions they were living in were shockingly filthy and cramped. We believe that some of them had been living and working there in a state of virtual slavery, some for just a few weeks and others for up to 15 years."

The chief inspector added: "Some people did leave and told us what was going on and when we looked back since 2008 we were aware of 28 people who had made similar accusations."

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